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Paramount Records' history in Ozaukee County

Posted at 7:02 AM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 14:05:40-05

OZAUKEE COUNTY — It may not look like much to someone passing by, but a unique part of Wisconsin history can be traced back to an empty plot of land in Ozaukee County.

Tucked along the banks of the Milwaukee River are the remnants of Paramount Records, which recorded blues and jazz music in the 1920s and 30s.

"Well, it was a little-known secret that we even had this in our backyard, back in the early 20s to 30s," says Tom Krueger, President of the Grafton Historical Society.

Paramount Records' history in Ozaukee County

All that remains at this site next to the flowing Milwaukee River is a concrete foundation and a rusted power wheel, but pieces to a very important puzzle for Grafton historian Angie Mack Reilly.

"A lot of that history was left out almost like it was a little footnote. When in reality, it really shaped a lot of who we are," says Angie Mack Reilly, a multi-disciplinary artist and blues historian.

Paramount Records' history in Ozaukee County

That history is the story of Paramount Records.

"It was a subsidiary of the New York Recording Laboratories, which was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company," says Angie.

The Wisconsin Chair Company, headquartered in Port Washington, made phonograph cabinets; and to drum up business, they came up with a unique marketing plan.

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"They were included as a freebie in order to promote the sale of their furniture," says Tom.

Paramount Records made acoustic recordings of popular blues and jazz musicians.

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"And they produced 25% of the nation's race records is what they called them. Basically, it was music by Black musicians," says Angie.

"Most of the records that they made were sold in cities like Chicago, Detroit which had pretty significant Black populations at that time," says Reggie Jackson.

Reggie Jackson is a Milwaukee Black historian and talks about the importance of these records.

"Jazz music blues music was really a way that that people who performed in our community really express their views about the world around them. It's an important part of the way that we kind of showed our resilience dealing with some very difficult times in our music," says Reggie.

The music stylings of these first blues and jazz artists still have a hold on culture today.

"If you think of the recordings in Grafton as the center of this circle, people like Charlie Patton, Skip James, Son House, Ma Rainey, those recordings influenced other musicians like Johnny Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters, BB King; and it just keeps going around and around and you get to Bob Dylan, and then you get to Led Zeppelin," says Angie Mack Reilly. "Locally, a lot of people don't understand that the music that we turn on the turn on the radio to listen to, was directly influenced by the recordings that were made by Paramount Records in Southeastern Wisconsin."

Historians say 1,600 songs were recorded during that time at Paramount Records.

"This is the precursor to a lot of Rock 'N Roll music and everyone you know I think relates to that but how did it come about? this is where it started," says Tom Krueger.

Dennis Klopp is a local man with a unique connection to that historic recording studio.

Dennis Klopp grew up in Ozaukee County and has original records of blues greats like Ma Rainey and Arthur 'Blind' Blake.

"But their claim to fame is the blues and jazz catalog they have," says Dennis Klopp. "But it was the style that people are looking for now, you know, that delta delta style."

"They did have a kind of a sound, that you know high lonesome slide guitar sound," says Dennis.

Klopp's great-uncle was a recording engineer at the studio in Grafton where they pressed all those records.

"Jazz records sold to everybody but blues records that was a much narrower you know focus for them," says Dennis.

Klopp says his great-uncle often brought home new pressings.

"Unfortunately, the uncles took them, sailed them over the bluff, and shot em like skeet shooting," says Dennis, "oh well."

But one key member of the family treasured the music.

"So, I'm being a little nosey going through a drawer, and here's a stack of Paramount Records and I'm looking at 'em and I'm going this must be a jazz record," says Dennis. "And then my grandmother swoops down grabs it and says you're not gonna break that like your uncles did."

Dennis says he learned about Paramount Records later in life because its origins weren't always shared.

"They closed the plant down right when the depression was started, and everybody was out of work and some people were a little bitter," says Dennis.

But Klopp is happy he dug deep into the music.

"It's tough not to tap your toes to."

Paramount Records a unique part of Wisconsin's Black history and American history. Something that can be treasured and shared for generations to come.

To learn more about how Grafton is celebrating Paramount Records click here.

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